Recently, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed legislation to prohibit unions from requiring workers to pay dues or representation fees, even if they are covered by union contracts. For the past few years, unions have been losing political fights with Republican legislatures over issues like the reduction of the Wisconsin public workers’ collective bargaining rights in 2011. During this time, several pastors from different denominations and religions have rallied to support workers in their fight against another reduction in union rights. Among the clergy who joined in the fight is the Reverand Jesse Jackson, who is a veteran in many of the progressive causes of the past 4 decades.
On December 8, 2012, Jonathan Oosting wrote an article about a rally of Detroit pastors at the Michigan Capitol that urged Governor Rick Snyder to reconsider his support for right-to-work legislation. Oosting wrote:
Rev. Charles William II, pastor of the Historic King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit and president of the Michigan Chapter of the National Action Network, explained that religious and civil rights leaders are called “to be the moral center on this issue. We are the voice that says what’s right and wrong, and we believe that right to work is wrong.
“It’s wrong for you to be able to take advantage of a collective bargaining agreement and not have to pay dues. That’s wrong. It’s wrong for workers to be taken advantage of on the backs of politics and games like the governor is playing and like the state legislature is playing.”
Williams said he and other pastors would be including inserts in their Sunday bulletins urging congregants to join them in Lansing on Tuesday for what is shaping up to be one of the largest Capitol protests in recent history.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke in front of Lansing City Hall and at the Capitol rotunda to show his support of the union fight. I looked up a biography website and wikipedia on Jackson and found some of his achievements. Jackson was a member of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and participated in many of the civil rights battles of the 1960s. Jackson was ordained as a minister and became the leader of Operation Breadbasket, the economic arm of the SCLC, which led boycotts by African American consumers to pressure white-owned businesses to hire blacks and to purchase goods and services from black-owned firms. In 1968, Jesse Jackson worked on the Poor People’s campaign that highlighted the issues of poverty. In 1971, Jesse Jackson founded Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) as a political organization to pressure politicians to work to improve economic opportunities for African Americans and poor people of all races. In 1984 Jackson established the National Rainbow Coalition to fight for equal rights for African-Americans, women and homosexuals. In 1984 and 1988, Jesse Jackson ran for President, winning several states in the Democratic primaries. In 2000 President Clinton awarded Jackson the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
I support the fight of union workers against Governor Snyder’s legislation that weakens unions. During the 1990s, I was a member of the part-time workers union of my local SEIU, and was secretary from 1998 to 2000. During that time, the issue of agency shop came up. With this issue, a person is not forced to join our union. Since non-union workers benefited from the contracts that the union negotiates with the city, it seemed fair for these non-union workers to pay a certain fee for the work that unions went through to secure benefits for that worker. These agency shop fees would be less than a union membership fee, but it would recompense the union for negotiating for wage increases, retirement benefits and medical benefits that all workers share. I agree with Rev. Charles William II that is wrong for non-union members to take advantage of collective bargaining agreements that unions work out with their employees and not have to pay some sort of dues.
Some people would argue that the clergy are stepping out of their bounds in taking such a political stand as to support the union in their fight. Yet the fight for justice has always been an important part of the Christian religion. When I used to attend an evangelical church in the 1990s, I studied a book titled Streams of Living: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith by Richard Foster. In this book, Foster examines six dimensions of Christian faith and practice: the Contemplative Tradition (the prayer filled life); the Holiness Tradition (the virtuous life); the Charismatic Tradition (the Spirit-empowered life); the Evangelical Tradition (the Bible-centered life); the Incarnational Tradition (the sacramental life); and the Social Justice Tradition (the compassionate live). Steve Wickam wrote about the social justice tradition:
The Compassionate Life picks up on three great Hebrew concepts: Mishpat (justice); Hesed (steadfast love); and Shalom (peace). Mishpat is even more expansive than legal justice, travels into and envelopes moral justice too. It’s the life of actually doing the works that are discussed in the Bible, and not merely believing, in true James’ style.
…Hesed reeks compassion as it is the ‘loving kindness’ of God himself that remains eternally i.e. it is with us always, “from everlasting to everlasting.” (Ps. 103:17) Graciousness, courtesy and compassion all partially alone, but collectively more fully, describe hesed.
“Harmonious unity in the natural order” describes Shalom. Harmony with God, our neighbours and nature in general, purposes a world where “peace and unity reign.” Certainly Jeremiah lamented a lack of shalom–all was not well. With shalom, all is well.
These three concepts meet in Psalm 85:10–“Mercy and loving-kindness and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (Amplified version)
The great challenge today is to destroy structures that perpetuate poverty, whilst working hard to support “institutions that enhance art and beauty.” These issues today are more numerously complex than ever, but we must not relent.
Two great books that talk about American Christians and activists from other religions who have worked within the Social Justice tradition are Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition by Dan McKanan and Divine Rebels: American Christian Activists For Social Justice by Deena Guzder. The former book highlights the work of Christians who have worked in the abolition movement, the labor movement, the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s suffrage movement, and the various other progressive movements of the past 200 years. The later book highlights American Christian activists who fight for a world free of racism, patriarchy, bigotry, ecological destruction, torture, poverty, and militarism. They describe Christians like Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Bayard Rustin, Suezan Bosler, Shane Claiborne, Daniel Berrigan, A.J. Muste, Ammon Hennacy and A. Philip Randolph. Jesse Jackson and the pastors who support the workers in their fight for union rights are following a long and proud tradition of Christians who fight for social justice.
One of the primary philosophies of the labor movement is that the worker should benefit from the fruits of his or her labor. This idea is found in a passage of Isaiah 65:21-25, which shows God’s concern for social justice. It reads:
They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
the work of their hands.
They will not labor in vain,
nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,
they and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
while they are still speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,”
says the Lord.
An October 12, 2011 youtube video of Michigan clergy speaking out against “Right-To-Work” legislation
A December 11, 2012 youtube video of Reverand Jesse Jackson at a “Right To Work” protest at Lansing, Michigan
Some December 12, 2012 youtube videos of Reverand Jesse Jackson in the Michigan state capital